Western desert

Military historians have adequately covered the incessant to-ing and fro-ing which were remarkable features of the early years of the North African campaign. And we, as part of the 8th Army, did as much shuttling to and fro as anyone else.

Infantry regiments at first, because of the nature of their discipline, tended to be encamped in tight formations with their tents in straight lines; tempting targets for enemy bombers and low-level strafing aircraft.

As a field-engineering unit offering a range of specialized services we had to be ready to respond quickly, wherever we were required. Perhaps because of the wide variety of our work and the many vehicles necessary to carry all our equipment, we were allowed more latitude in deciding where to site ourselves, usually as far away from more vulnerable targets as practicable.

On one occasion when encamped fairly near the sea, six of us who would normally have shared a ridge tent discovered a nearby outcrop of chalk cliff with a small ready-made cave. With a little more excavation it provided us with almost luxurious accommodation, much safer than a tent, being invisible from the air, and this became our temporary home.

Strict water rationing meant that the meagre allowance per man demanded that the first priorities were washing and shaving. Plentiful tea was served at mealtimes.

Itinerant Bedouins from an unknown local oasis would occasionally appear and sell us miniscule chickens' eggs and large red-fleshed water-melons. Delicious. The numerous pips, we discarded on the sandy soil outside our cave. Here too we threw our ablution water. So imagine our joy when the seeds began to sprout, though not perhaps surprising since Egypt’s climate wherever water is available encourages the cultivation of two or more various arable crops a year. Religiously we watered our melon patch and just as expected, it responded and indeed began to flower under the day-long sunshine.

The exigencies of the war however put an end to our horticultural activities and once again under pressure from General Rommel we retreated eastwards towards the Delta.

Just as predictably, a few weeks later with fresh reinforcements we again advanced westwards, and were able to stay but one night in our old cave.

This had obviously been occupied by Germans, and hooray, our water melon crop was still there – and thriving. Fruit the size of oranges had already appeared.

A notice in English had been impaled to the cave wall with a tent peg and read: Don’t forget to water the melons, Tommy. We’ll soon be back.

I wonder.

*   *   *

The drive westwards took us well into Libya until, once again, the ebb and flow of battle forced the 8th Army to retreat back into Egypt, by-passing but not surrendering Tobruk which became a besieged fortress because of its strategic importance as a harbour and its surrounding terrain which made it defensible.

At this point in my service a guardian deity took control of my future and unimaginable luck accompanied me thereafter, as I shall record.

To our surprise a Sergeant Frank Reynolds and I were both detached from our unit and transferred to the Tobruk garrison Headquarters. The remainder of the field company continued its retreat westwards.

As Reynolds and I were both capable of handling explosives, our job, we were told, would be to destroy all Tobruk’s dockside installations should a German breakthrough appear inevitable.

Being told what to do in certain circumstances was usual enough, and discipline ordained that we didn’t argue the toss. But here we met a gross example of military incompetence.

Our work, had it become necessary, would have demanded the utmost speed and efficiency. Fine. We both considered ourselves fast and efficient. But we were with faced with one important deficiency. We had no explosives!

Being dangerous commodities, they were not left idly lying around; nor were we issued with them to guard as we thought fit. Perhaps NCOs, even full sergeants, were not considered senior enough for the care of such exciting commodities. Or had nobody given this problem enough thought?

To get what we needed fast would have taken time. Obtaining anything from the quartermaster’s stores always entailed a lengthy procedure; explosives even more so. First we would have had to get the correct indenting forms, usually in triplicate. Then have them countersigned by an officer of sufficient authority to allow such dangerous items to be issued. Being of an unpredictable nature to the uninitiated, the forms would now probably have to be quadruplicated to spread the responsibility should anything go amiss. So finding anyone authorised to sign would be no easy task with most of them at battle stations.

Next, the quartermaster himself would have had to be found, even if it meant waiting for him to return from an extended lunch and finally, with luck, after the usual stubborn arguments, we’d get what we needed. The Army’s philosophy then, doubtless occasioned by the probable chaos would seem to have been, don’t worry, it’ll be all right on the night!

Meanwhile Frank and I decided to find somewhere to live, preferably in the open air and as far from the headquarters building as practicable. And this we did. At an unoccupied site we dug a fox hole six foot by six foot and four feet deep, which served us admirably.

Our duties were minimal, merely reporting frequently to HQ so that our whereabouts was always known.

Garrison Headquarters was housed in a large three-storey, square building near the dockside. Whitewashed overall by the previous Italian administration it must have presented an attractive aerial target.With this in mind a concrete air-raid shelter had been built in its large courtyard. In the building itself I was to have two most extraordinary encounters with senior officers.

All supplies for the garrison had to be brought in by sea. A hazardous job, this, and usually undertaken at night.

We always knew when to be alert, for the daily air raids were precisely at ten o’clock in the morning and four in the afternoon. Their targets were the ships in the harbour waiting to be unloaded, the headquarters building and large adjacent storage sheds. Fresh supplies of ammunition were always quickly dispersed and stored well away from the port’s centre.

The only deterrent to the Luftwaffe’s raids were the New Zealand anti-aircraft batteries sited around the harbour, which kept enemy planes high enough to hinder precision bombing. We, of course, had no air support.

The garrison comprised Australian, New Zealand and British troops, with Australians predominating in the HQ building both as administrators and as guards, the latter sometimes creating dramatic effects.

Their exuberance with firearms could be quite stimulating. If their sentries saw a light bulb burning at night, instead of shouting, "Douse it up there!" they were just as likely to shoot it out, even though it might only be visible from the ground.

With the Allied forces re-entering Tobruk I had found and liberated an abandoned guitar. It was not exactly a Gibson, but adequate enough, and if I were around the HQ building when air-raid warnings sounded I would take it into the courtyard shelter and start noisy sing-songs with the Aussies there to drown out the noise of the bombs falling elsewhere.

On one occasion I was in the HQ building when I heard a warning siren, and quickly decided to shelter in the basement, which also appeared reasonably safe.

There, I found a large bare whitewashed room lit by a single bulb. Long wooden benches were fitted around three walls. As I was about to seat myself in a corner position, the safest I reckoned, a red-tabbed brigadier entered the basement with the same intention and chose the adjacent bench-seat in the same corner. And there we sat, knees close to each other, unspeaking. There was nothing much to talk about. The weather scarcely merited a mention. It was always the same, warm and sunny. And in any case the gap in rank was too great for any meaningful small talk.

Although well underground we could still hear the bombs falling outside.

Then came an almighty ‘WHOOPH’, which lifted us both, two or three inches off our seats. There was no explosion, but it was obvious that a very large bomb had fallen close to the building’s foundation.

To lower the morale of the Tobruk garrison the Germans had started dropping delayed action bombs. Unpredictable, they were timed to explode ten, twenty, forty minutes later, or even during the following night.

Could this one be such a beast? If so, what to do? Urgent decisions were needed, surely.

The obvious, most sensible thing would have been to evacuate the basement as quickly as possible and seek shelter elsewhere.

The brigadier and I looked at each other I should like to think, with complete composure; but in the circumstances, probably not. Who was going to be the first to move? As the senior of the two it was doubtless his responsibility to make a decision. As a sergeant with some experience of explosive forces, was it not my duty to advise him of the possible detonative effect from a source probably only a few feet away? But the medal ribbons on his tunic told me he was no slouch. So I said nothing.

Silently we sat there like two gentlemen passengers in a first class carriage, rather like du Passant’s two Englishmen, not talking because we hadn’t been introduced. I looked at him. He looked at me; both of us expressionless.

With head-clutching concentration I carefully inspected the bare whitewashed wall behind him as though it held details from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. We seemed to be sitting there for days, occasionally glancing at each other, fiercely expressionless.

Eventually the noise outside died away and we heard the long beautiful howl of the all clear.

We both rose and unhurriedly made for the door. I naturally paused to give him right of way. To my surprise he stopped and waved me to go through first. Once through we walked casually along the broad corridor, he inclined to the left towards the stairs leading up to admin, I towards the stairs on my right to go outside.

With his foot on the first step he stopped. "Sergeant?" he said.

‘Sir?’ I also stopped.

He gave me a quick grin and said, "Fucking idiots, aren’t we?"

What to say? "Join the club, sir?" Best not. So I just returned his grin, nodded and went outside to see if I were needed.

The bomb, excavated the following day, proved to be a dud.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007